Laughter: Betty White’s Secret to Longevity

“My advice to the younger generation is control your mental attitude. Try to look on the upside. If one has no sense of humor, one is in trouble!” – Betty White 

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Betty White is a leadership role model for her impressive career, her positive mental attitude, and her inspirational acceptance of aging. On January 17th the former Golden Girl proudly defied aging stereotypes by celebrating her 90th birthday with honesty, laughter and wit.  Apart from being a remarkable representative of her own generation, her self-effacing leadership style has made her a great public figure for today’s youth who have grown up in an anti-aging world.  She is a proud spokesperson for the AARP, recently launching an amusing campaign for the association called “Get Over It, “a program that focuses on the subject of aging.

The ability to laugh at oneself and to see the absurdity and silliness in life is a critical component of a healthy worldview.  It is not difficult to understand why so many teachers and educational leaders experience a constant sense of being overwhelmed and stressed. Humor provides a valuable escape from our technology-driven world that demands immediate responses and around-the-clock access.

Business author Daniel Goleman (Primal Leadership, 2002) agrees with Betty White and her admirers. He too insists that laughing is an important component of effective leadership. According to Goleman, laughter represents the shortest distance between two people because it instantly interlocks their brain-to-brain limbic systems. “Research on humor at work,” he writes, “reveals that a well-timed joke or playful laughter can stimulate creativity, open lines of communication, enhance a sense of connection and trust, and, of course, make work more fun.”

The connection between laughter and leadership is a contemporary understanding.  Laughter promotes:

  •       Less stressful and volatile environments
  •       Better personal health and well-being
  •       More productive organizations, groups, and teams
  •       Greater creativity
  •       Longer attention span
  •       Greater teacher retention

Business owners and educators who laugh with their staff and students have more engaged, motivated and productive people, teams, and classes than those who see the leader’s role as separate and distant. As important as the aforementioned consequences of laughter might appear, however, the development of more meaningful relationships is perhaps the most valuable of all. The relationship of laughter to inter-personal wellbeing is long-established.

It has often been said that the shortest route between two people is laughter.  When developing a “sense of humor,” however, care should be taken not to become the office jokester or comedian.  While people are drawn to others who are able to laugh, they are highly suspicious of leaders who are not serious-minded.  As with all leadership qualities, it is important to cultivate a mature and balanced attitude.

The ability to laugh is a valuable leadership quality.  Since the role of a leader is arguably more challenging now than at any other time in our history, the desire to express a sense of humor is vital. While meeting the diverse needs of employees, teams, and students by providing the necessary organizational resources and support, successful leaders also understand the importance of using laughter to help develop meaningful relationships. Unfortunately, although research supports the need for entrepreneurs and educators to embrace a leadership style that is more collaborative and authentic, current reality indicates that many are unable – or unwilling – to move beyond self-protective hierarchical frameworks.

Leonardo da Vinci continued to play as a child throughout his adult life thus baffling his contemporaries. Albert Einstein was famous for his pervasive, impish sense of humor. He sometimes presented his theories as jokes. Mark Twain wrote that the human race “has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”  More recently, the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, quipped that the secret of his highly successful company lies in their ability “to focus on fun and profit … and know how the two go together.”

Like da Vinci, Einstein, Twain, Kelleher and, the much-celebrated “great communicator” ex-president Ronald Reagan, Betty White’s appeal is undeniably her self-effacing sense of humor!  In the end, the charm and length of life of these highly popular leaders speaks volumes for the potency of laughter.

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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